PITTSBURGH — The Bengals broke the cardinal rule of a big game on the road when they gave away points while committing four penalties in the first 11 minutes and went on to a first-half implosion that spiraled into a 35-7 loss. Cincinnati fell behind Pittsburgh 21-0 in the second quarter and went into halftime behind 28-7 at Heinz Field.
The Bengals are now minus-5 in turnover differential in three games this season against division rivals Baltimore and Pittsburgh. The 28-point loss was Cincinnati's largest since a 37-0 loss to the New York Jets in the 2009 season finale.
The Bengals may have come into the game leading the NFL in erasing double-digit deficits this season, but they had never been down by 21 as the young Bengals coped with their shakiest outing in their biggest game of the year.
The meltdown happened quickly and it was complete and total.
Wide receiver A.J. Green's false-start penalty wiped out a touchdown and a delay-of-game penalty eliminated Mike Nugent's 28-yard field goal as the first Bengals drive of the game blew up with no points. And then the proud special teams that had played so well this year continued to unravel by fumbling a kickoff and allowing Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown to return a punt 60 yards for a touchdown with 1:16 left in the half.
When the wreckage cleared at halftime, the Bengals had lost their season-long poise with six huge penalties for 80 yards and their edgy run defense had been gouged for 74 yards on 16 carries. The Bengals set a season high with 10 penalties.
Plus, it was a rout in the injury column, too. The Bengals lost right tackle Andre Smith in the second quarter and Anthony Collins replaced him for the rest of the game.
The Bengals couldn't get it righted in the second half. The second-ranked Steelers defense did exactly what you'd expect with a huge lead. They teed off on rookie quarterback Andy Dalton as left tackle Andrew Whitworth gave up his first-ever sack to Steelers Pro Bowler James Harrison, one of three he had on the day.
It was one long abyss. The Bengals could manage just 33 yards in the third quarter and Bruce Gradkowski replaced Dalton with 13 minutes left in the game to avoid any more mayhem.
Three minutes later Gradkowski got intercepted by cornerback Ike Taylor as he took a shot at Green. Dalton left 11-of-24 passing for 135 yards, his fewest since he played only the first half in the opener. Roethlisberger then left right after and he jacked his record against Cincinnati to 12-4 and to the AFC North to 31-9. He didn't have to be magnificent at 15-of-23 for 176 yards, but he did pump in a 122 rating with two touchdown passes.
Green finished with six catches for 87 yards, but the story of the Bengals in the game were the early miscues.
It took 16 minutes, but Roethlisberger chopped up the undermanned Bengals secondary with big plays as he finished the half 7-of-11 for 99 yards. A 45-yard crossing route to Brown set up the first touchdown with 12:47 left in the first half and a 45-yard pass interference penalty by safety Chris Crocker working on wide receiver Mike Wallace at the Bengals 20 set up the second TD. Roethlisberger overthrew Wallace but Crocker was called for making contact with him.
Running back Rashard Mendenhall scored on a five-yard touchdown to make it 14-0 with 10:12 left in the half when he cut a sweep back on middle linebacker Rey Maualuga and ran through defensive lineman Robert Geathers's tackle. Maualuga didn't return for the rest of the half after injuring his ankle but he opened the second half.
And the special teams miscues kept coming on the ensuing kickoff. Linebacker Stevenson Sylvester barely got his hand on the ball as he ran by Tate and the ball popped out for Tate's first fumble of the season that put the ball on the Bengals 23.
It took Roethlisberger just three plays to make it hurt when his 12-yard touchdown pass to Wallace working on cornerback Kelly Jennings made it 21-0 with 8:33 left in the half.
Green momentarily stopped the bleeding when he ran a reverse for 15 yards, caught a 14-yarder in front of Taylor and then caught his seventh touchdown of the season on the back line of the end zone behind a zone defense, an 11-yarder from Dalton.
But Dalton couldn't get anything generated with 1:48 left in the half and on third down he barely avoided a sack in the end zone when defensive end Brett Keisel broke through the left side and he ran out of the pocket to throw an incompletion.
That set up the killing punt return for a touchdown, Brown's 60-yarder that was the first punt returned against the Bengals since Houston's Jacoby Jones went 73 yards in 2008.
Cornerback Bryant McFadden got the big block on the perimeter when he sealed off Jennings, but the Bengals felt the officials missed an easy and visible penalty on the Steelers. Cornerback Curtis Brown blocked Bengals wide receiver Andrew Hawkins in the back just as he was converging on Antonio Brown.
Dalton was 9-of-20 for 116 yards in the half and Green finished the half with 73 yards on four catches while running back Cedric Benson got 42 yards on nine carries, but the mistakes were too big to overcome.
On the first drive, Dalton deployed Green and two other receivers left and put Gresham by himself wide to the right and Gresham slanted in front of safety Troy Polamalu for the four-yard touchdown on third down.
But Green flinched and Dalton had to it again. He overthrew Gresham double-covered down the middle to bring on Nugent. But his 28-yarder didn't beat the clock and his 33-yarder got blocked when defensive end Cameron Heyward came up the middle and blocked it for Nugent's second miss in 23 tries.
The undermanned Bengals defense opened well and held the Steelers to 12 yards in the first 12 minutes and first two drives. Cornerback Adam Jones separated a wide-open Wallace from the ball for one incompletion and Crocker defended Brown on third-and-nine to force a punt.
But that was it.
PREGAME NOTES: With cornerback Nate Clements and defensive tackle Pat Sims inactive with injuries, the Bengals defense had an uphill climb amid the hills surrounding Heinz Field on Sunday in their game for first place in the AFC North against the Steelers.
That left banged-up safety Chris Crocker as the slot man and little-used Brandon Ghee as the third cornerback against Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's passing game ranked eighth in the NFL and featuring the long ball threats of wide receivers Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown.
Although Sims doesn't start, he plays a good amount on running downs, where the Bengals are ranked fifth in the league.
The Steelers rank 10th in the league in pass plays of 20 yards with 41 and are tied for 15th in pass plays of 40 (six) on offense. The Bengals rank tied for 10th in pass plays of 20 (32) and are tied for 13th in pass plays of 40 (six) on defense. And most of those numbers were racked up against a secondary that had Clements and Leon Hall at cornerback.
But against the Steelers the Bengals lined up Adam Jones in his fourth game back from injury, and Kelly Jennings making his first Bengals start.
And these Steelers are not those Steelers because they can throw it in a hurry. Roethlisberger and Wallace have hooked up for 11 touchdowns of at least 40 yards since 2009, and Brown has caught 30 balls for 445 yards and a touchdown in the last five games. And he was Roethlisberger's go-to guy three weeks ago in Cincinnati for five catches for 86 yards.
Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians was expected to blanket the field with speedy four-receiver sets featuring Wallace, Brown and wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, not to mention Steelers all-time receiver Hines Ward lining up in the slot.
Also inactive for the Bengals was tight end Donald Lee (foot) for the fourth straight game. Linebacker Dontay Moch, guard Clint Boling, wide receiver Ryan Whalen, and left end Carlos Dunlap were also down.
Rookie safety Robert Sands, a fifth-round pick out of West Virginia, was active for the first time in his career.
How big was this one? Steelers owner Dan Rooney, the U.S. ambassador to Ireland, wasn't supposed to be back until Christmas but he wanted to be here Sunday to see Pittsburgh play the Bengals. The Bengals lost the toss and the Steelers took the ball.
Game captains were left tackle Andrew Whitworth, defensive tackle Domata Peko, tight end Jermaine Gresham, defensive tackle Geno Atkins, and linebacker Vincent Rey.